Q&A: Patterson Hood On Drive-By Truckers’ Angry Political Anthem “The Perilous Night”
Like many of us, Patterson Hood is mad as hell and has been for a while now. The Drive-By Truckers co-frontman has spent the past year-plus watching the rise of Donald Trump and all its attendant consequences with horror and frustration. Yet even coming off an album as overtly political as 2016’s American Band, for months he struggled to put his feelings into words. And then white supremacists marched through Charlottesville and murdered a counter-protester, and the president had the gall to say there were some “very fine people” among their ranks. Very quickly after that it all came pouring out.
The resulting song is called “The Perilous Night.” It’s a raucous barroom rocker with pessimistic lyrics expressing the frustration many of us have felt while watching so many Americans — including people we love — bend over backwards to justify the unjustifiable. The Truckers started performing it on tour immediately. Now, on the first Election Day since last year’s debacle, they’re releasing a studio version as a reminder to get out and vote.
Last month I called up Hood at home in Portland, Oregon, where he and his family relocated from Athens, Georgia two and a half years ago. While helping his daughter recover from spinal fusion surgery to correct a 58-degree curve from scoliosis, he spoke at length about the state of America and his next steps as a songwriter. Read our conversation below.
STEREOGUM: You’re at home in Portland today. What was the impetus for the move from Georgia?
PATTERSON HOOD: Just ready for a change, I guess, more than anything. I’ve always loved Portland. Basically my neighborhood I used to live in in Athens all got pulled out by developers. We were the last holdouts. And so they basically ran us out of our house. So, we were going to have to move anyway, and so we thought, “Well, fuck, we’ve always talked about living in some other part of the country, let’s do it.” And so we’ve been here about two and a half years. It’s been great. It’s been hard, but it’s been really great. Beautiful city.
STEREOGUM: Let’s talk about the genesis of “The Perilous Night.” Did it come together quickly? I remember reading somewhere that you were kinda stumped for a while.
HOOD: It was hard. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever written — as far as the writing of it. I feel like we’ve always been this kinda political band. There’s always been a political aspect to almost everything we’ve ever done. And of course, our last record, it was a lot more on the surface, more, I guess, blatant for lack of a better way of putting it. At the same time, the current situation in our country is just, you know, it sucks. And it’s hard to write anything with much finesse about what’s going on because it’s such a clusterfuck. It’s like writing about a bowel movement. It’s hard to write anything eloquent about diarrhea, and that’s kind of what the political situation in our country is right now. It’s just like a big exploding shit. Everything I would write, I would hate it. And I would tear it up and cast it aside. I guess I wrote a first draft of that song last December on the day of the Electoral College vote. Because it was already becoming evident to anyone if you actually looked at it with an open mind that there was some fucked-up shit already surfacing. And it hadn’t even gotten as far as the Russian thing and all that. And it just kept getting worse, and I kept going back to it trying to tackle it again and getting mad and tossing it aside. And then this summer when the Charlottesville thing happened, the song got finished. It all kinda came out there ’cause that was just unconscionable.
So I finished it, and then I had a show that night playing solo in McCabe’s in LA, in Santa Monica. And so I played it that night in front of an audience. I actually opened with it that night. I was by myself, and I just went out there and opened with it. And it got a pretty amazing reaction. I mean, it got kind of a standing-ovation reaction. So I think I at least kind of said what was on the people’s mind that night, ’cause everybody’d been watching that unfold. I mean this was literally the week of the Charlottesville thing, and the president saying that everyone was to blame, and all that kinda bullshit. Really, I’m bored with writing about all that shit. I’m hoping that this is the last thing I’ll write about it for a while. I’m writing some other stuff and kind of ready to not have that side of my brain so tied in with all this crap. So I look at this song as like an exclamation point on the end of what we did last year with American Band. I’m really proud to see it come out as a single. We’re gonna have a double A-side with the other side of it being a live version of “What It Means” we recorded at Newport this past summer, which really turned out well. So hopefully, that’s kind of it for this stuff for a bit. Of course, now that I said that, I’ll probably write something tomorrow.
STEREOGUM: Releasing a one-off single just a year after you released an album implies a certain urgency to get the music out.
HOOD: Yeah, I’d rather go ahead and just get it out there. I don’t really see this song as being on the next record or anything ’cause I’m hoping the next record will be going in a different direction. That said, I’m definitely proud of it. The recording of it was much easier than the writing of it. I mean we basically went in the studio and set up and did it really kinda super quickly. It was a handful of takes. We actually worked it up that day and probably an hour later had it done. So it was really fun to record. The band’s been touring all year, so we’re tight, and everybody’s in a good place, good state of mind. So that all went really good.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned a couple times that hopefully this is the last time you write about this stuff for a while. But at the same time, the tone of the song itself seems pretty pessimistic — “All hope is fading and it’s not coming back again,” that kind of thing.
HOOD: Yeah, and I hate that. I really do. I’m proud of it as a piece of work, as a piece of writing. I think I accomplished what I was setting out to do as a writer and as a musician and as an artist and all that stuff, but I don’t like feeling that way. I mean I’m not by nature a pessimistic person. And when it comes down to a long term, if we can avoid annihilating ourselves in the next year or so — however long we’ve got this motherfucker in office — I still feel cautiously optimistic about the future, other than the damage we’re gonna have to spend however long undoing that he’s doing. I feel like the pendulum is gonna definitely swing back the other way pretty strongly. But I don’t have any optimism for however long he’s there ’cause he’s just a fucking exploding shit.
STEREOGUM: You name Trump by name in the song, as well as Putin. Did you feel like it was important to name names and be real specific about things rather than speaking in allegory and symbolism here?
HOOD: Yeah, I think so. I’ve spent most of my time as a writer writing more in allegory and symbolism and, you know, setting stories in other timeframes and things like that, addressing current problems through the lens of something that happened long ago, ’cause I’m a history buff. I’ve always done a lot of that. But I think the situation we’re in calls for a more direct response, so that was definitely a conscious decision.
STEREOGUM: You talked about how you guys have always been a political band to an extent and how that has ramped up and become more overt in recent years. I was at your Columbus show recently, and you had the Black Lives Matter sign on stage with you. Have you ever clashed with any of your fans over politics? Or do you tend to just mostly attract a more progressive fan base?
HOOD: I think this has happened to an extent. There’s definitely been some pushback from some people. I’m sure there are some people that have quit seeing us over it, and I hate that, that’s sad to me. But at the same time, if that’s how it has to be, so be it. I mean, my job isn’t to kiss anyone’s ass. My job is to write what I feel and to do it to the best of my abilities. And someone doesn’t have to agree with what I feel or to like it, but I don’t take kindly to someone telling me to not write what I feel. Make me feel differently! It’s what it is. I hate that it’s that way, but it is that way.
STEREOGUM: You were talking about wanting to go off in other directions in terms of your songwriting. Do you have a sense of the direction that you’re gonna go in or how the new music is going to change in terms of subject matter?
HOOD: The stuff I’ve been writing lately is super personal. I mean, I considered the political stuff I wrote last year on American Band to be very personal to me. It’s things I feel very strongly about. But I think my newer songs tend to be more about the other end of the personal spectrum: family and friends and relationships and things like that. It’s still early to say, but I’m glad that I’m writing again. ‘Cause for about a year after I finished American Band, I didn’t write anything. I was very busy. If you really knew me, after I finished writing my part of American Band, with how busy I was with the Truckers and life and also how uninspired I was by the things going on around me in our country, I just didn’t write, really. So I feel good that I’m writing again. But I just kind of said my peace about all of that. I don’t wanna write the same album again that I wrote last time, ever. I’m very proud of what we did with American Band and what it says and how it says it. If there’s something new I can add to the conversation that isn’t just rehashing what I’ve already done, then I’m all about it. But my head has kind of been moving in some other directions now.
Drive-By Truckers tour dates:
01/26 – Kansas City, MO @ The Truman#
01/27 – Minneapolis, MN @ First Avenue#
01/28 – Sioux Falls, SD @ Orpheum Theatre#
01/31 – Missoula, MT @ The Wilma#
02/01 – Portland, OR @ Roseland Theater#
02/02 – Vancouver, BC @ Imperial#
02/03 – Seattle, WA @ Moore Theatre#
02/05 – Boise, ID @ Knitting Factory#
02/07 – San Francisco, CA @ Great American Music Hall#
02/08 – San Francisco, CA @ Great American Music Hall#
02/09 – Los Angeles, CA @ El Rey#
02/10 – Phoenix, AZ @ The Van Buren#
02/15 – Athens, GA @ 40 Watt with T. Hardy Morris
02/16 – Athens, GA @ 40 Watt with David Barbe and Inward Dream Ebb / Camp Amped
02/17 – Athens, GA @ 40 Watt#
# – with Lilly Hiatt
The double A-side “What It Means” (Live at Newport Folk Festival) b/w “The Perilous Night” 7″ is out 12/15 on ATO. Pre-order it here.